After watching the divisiveness and political base-pandering emanating from the White House this past week, it was a welcome relief to hear about two politically very different groups of people — one from conservative Kentucky coal country and another from liberal Leverett — who are reaching out “across the hills” to build bridges of understanding rather than walls of discord.
The Bridging Committee of 18 Leverett residents has arranged “Hands Across the Hills,” a kind of sister-city cultural exchange with socio-political overtones. The sister community is Letcher County, Ky., which has an estimated population of about 23,000 — about one-third that of Franklin County. There, about 80 percent of voters last November voted for Donald Trump, compared to about 27 percent in Franklin County.
But a group in Leverett, where only 14.4 percent of voters backed Trump, has reached out to counterparts in extreme southeastern Kentucky to find common ground at the grassroots in a time when so much political rhetoric at the highest levels is about “us”
and “them,” division and walls.
The exchange launched with an evening of films Monday and will culminate in a visit by Letcher County residents Oct. 28 and 29.
“Hands Across the Hills,” involves 15 visitors — including three teens — driving 13 hours from Kentucky’s coal country for a weekend of music, dancing, presentations and some frank discussions with their Leverett counterparts, who plan to visit Letcher County next spring.
The idea evolved in the aftermath of last November’s election, when many Leverett residents began searching for ways to reach out to groups with different social and political views.
Leverett made a connection with Ben Fink, a Connecticut-raised recent transplant in Letcher County, who says his more progressive Northeastern ways mark him as different but that he has “found almost everyone here is ready to open up, take me in and work together. … The bigotry and violence of the Trump campaign wasn’t the product of our people, money or ideas. My neighbors may not be up on the latest social justice lingo, but they are not hateful.”
Like Fink, Jay Frost, a Leverett organizer, sees great promise in the gathering.
“We’re all shouting at each other right now. The Trump people hate the liberals, the progressives … but we all have common interests; it doesn’t matter what our political views are. Whether it’s good public schools, a clean environment, no war, (dealing with) opioid addiction, social justice, jobs. Cut out the noise and find out where we can work together. And move forward. Cut out the politicians. Do it ourselves. That’s my motivation: I wanted to do something positive because there was a lot of negativity floating around.”
The bridge that Lechter and Leverett are building is refreshing to see, and the participants who have decided to reach across the hills deserve credit for taking action while others just lament the poison in our politics today.
The Leverett residents will be hosting the rural Kentucky guests in their homes during a weekend that will include a public Saturday morning community forum, a Leverett Community Chorus concert and a potluck lunch and a dinner and contradance — along with closed sessions for the two groups to share their feelings more freely.
Frost, a staunch environmentalist, admits “a little tinge of fear,” as he prepares to host a 74-year-old former strip miner who still advocates for strip mining.
Frost, who voted for Bernie Sanders, and who like other group members has been reading books and articles to learn more about life in conservative America, admits that he, like many others, has harbored stereotypes: “‘How could these idiots vote for Mitch McConnell?’ I don’t feel that way anymore. These people have a totally different framework, because they have a totally different life experience. We have to understand that.”
Both Kentuckians and Baystate progressives have lots to learn from each other, it seems. One thing they may learn is how much they have in common and can learn from one another if they approach each other with respect and openness.
Fink says he’s been amazed to see how many similarities exist between these two politically different areas, from shape-note singing and traditional music to an emphasis on local food and traditions and grassroots efforts to get broadband to the people.
Like both groups, we hope this effort goes well and may inspire similar efforts elsewhere, that it will build a bridge that other people can cross, and that in turn will lead to richer understanding among the diverse people in our country. We’re different, but we’re all Americans.
Photo from left to right: Jay Frost, Sharon Dunn, Jim Perkins and Paula Green of Leverett Alliance “Bridging Divides” group look at materials from Letcher County, Kentucky in advance of their people-to-people exchange. Recorder photo/Richie Davis